Playing poker for a living requires a few skills that are less crucial in most other occupations. The one that is hardest to quantify is also one of the least discussed: psychological self-awareness and self-maintenance. You cannot win at poker in the long run if you are mentally unwell or out of touch with your emotions. During my recent stay at Foxwoods, I failed in this category. In fact, I temporarily lost my sanity. It has now returned, but I think I experienced what psychologists might call “an episode.”
As I mentioned previously, I was barely profitable from August through the beginning of November. Droughts definitely come with the territory in this job, but it’s a lot easier to recognize their inevitability than it is to actually work through one in progress. I dealt with the August-November drought in three phases. First, I accepted it and tried to work through it. Then, when it began to stretch on longer than anything I’d experienced prior, I employed the same detached indifference that is indispensable in the short term (for instance in the typical cash game session). I treated the drought as if it wasn’t even there. Except it was. Then, once a full month of indifference elapsed, I entered phase three: panic.
Yes, my first seven months as a professional had been very successful. Way more successful than I’d ever dreamed. My stats told the convincing story of a winning professional poker player. In fact, if I had lost ten grand per month for the remainder of the year, I still would have come out way ahead of the goals I set for myself back in January. Nevertheless, there is a ruthless daily pressure to perform in a world where paychecks aren’t guaranteed. Meet with failure (actually, meet with sporadic success interspersed mostly with failure) enough times and an aura of disappointment emerges. By late October, it got to the point where I expected to lose. Now mix in the fact that I’m hyperactive self-critic. The end result was that whatever small measure lingering doubt I had that I could pull off my new career festered then blossomed into a full-blown panic. I was beating the shit out of myself on a daily basis. And under those conditions, I departed for Foxwoods.
As you might imagine, the bubble exit in the $2000 Monday tournament didn’t help matters. While the ensuing 12 hours of sleep did balance things a bit, I went right back to losing on Tuesday, making a couple of quick departures from two single table tournaments. I then took the night off from poker, instead visiting my college buddy Elmo and his wife at their home in the central Connecticut wilderness. The visit was refreshing, but as I made my way back to Foxwoods on the unlit rural roads in dreary nighttime conditions, the thick fog through which I had to navigate offered up an obvious metaphor. I needed a breakthrough in the worst way. The next day would be one of the most important days of my year.
I woke up on Wednesday and decided to get back to basics. I decided to play a long session of 2-5 no limit. Two-five is well below the limits my bankroll permits me to play, but I recognized that I needed some measure of success, no matter how small, to bolster my flagging confidence. So I set my sights low, intending to play some A-B-C poker with the simple goal of putting a dent in my deficit for the trip.
Two-five no limit in a casino (as opposed to online or in a NYC club) is not a difficult game. All two-five tables in casinos have horrible players at them. Many of these players are not playing 1-2 no limit (typically the smallest no limit game in the room) either because they are too wealthy for the 1-2 game to hold their interest or because they think they are better at poker than they are. In a casino environment, many 2-5 players belong in the 1-2 game or at the blackjack table, where their chances of success are much stronger.
Foxwoods caps the 2-5 buy in at $500, which creates an interesting dynamic at the table. Some players have big stacks, ranging from 1000 to over 2000, and several other players are hovering at the 500 max buy in or lower. 500 bucks is not a very deep stack in this type of game, where the standard preflop raise is $30 or $40, and the number of moves at your disposal is quite limited when either you or your opponent has a short stack.
So there are a two distinct phases of play. First, as a short stack, you simply look to double up. The only way to accomplish this is to make a hand. Under the conditions I’ve described, running a bluff only works under one condition: you’re a deep stack and so is your opponent. If you are a short stack, your opponent typically looks you up when you move in. If you are a deep stack, running a bluff against a short stack is pointless, as the short stack will simply call off his chips and rebuy if he has any kind of a hand. So phase one is to make a hand and become a big stack.
Phase two is where you finally begin to play poker. As a deep stack, more moves are added to the arsenal, as you can constantly threaten to bust the shorter stacks and get tricky with the other big stacks.
After donating about $400 to the game, after a few hours of play I managed to complete phase one, increasing my stack to $1200. From there, according to plan, I started to play more aggressively, until I was sitting on around $2000 chips. However, despite my success, there were a couple of problems. First, I was somewhat unfocused. While I did make some pretty intuitive plays, for the most part I was mentally on autopilot. The session dragged on for several hours, and I failed to maintain my concentration. Second, I was having trouble reading the board. The poker tables at Foxwoods are very large. This is good and bad. The good news is they’re not cramped, but the bad news is that the players in the 3 and 8 seats are situated unusually far from the center of the table. I was in the 8 seat and found myself continually leaning forward or standing up in order to read the board. These two problems foreshadowed the following hand.
My opponent in this hand was a super loose aggressive player, a borderline maniac who was playing about 75% of the hands. He got stacked a few times right after he sat down, but later doubled up and began to accumulate chips from that point forward. We both had around $1700 in front of us when we had a confrontation.
The kid limped in early position. This was nothing new, he had been limping in on almost every hand. I was on the button and I had Ac-7d. Everyone folded to me and I raised to $40. I did this because I knew my hand was stronger than the maniac’s, and because I wanted to get heads up with him. The blinds folded and of course the maniac called.
The flop came Ah-Jh-4s, and the maniac led out for $75. I felt that I was ahead at this point, but I didn’t want to raise because I knew the maniac would reraise if he was holding a draw. I much preferred to call and see what happened on the turn, which is exactly what I did. The turn was the eight of spades, and now the maniac bet $200. I was now a little less sure of where I stood, but still thought my hand was probably good, so I called again. There was over $600 in the pot, a pretty big hand for 2-5 NL. The river was the four of hearts, but it only registered in my mind as a small heart. It completed the possible flush and paired the board. The maniac shrugged and checked. I realized that my hand was probably good and that only a better hand would call a bet, so I checked behind, ending the hand.
At this point the maniac said “two pair” and tabled the J-8 of diamonds. I peeled my A-7 off the felt, looked at the hand one last time, shook my head and mucked the cards. The dealer shipped the maniac the pot as he said “what did you have? I wasn’t beating anything.” I said that I had an ace. “If you had an ace, you had the winning hand. You had nothing,” he replied. I retraced the hand in my head. How was an ace any good? Did the board pair on the river? Yes, it did. I had mucked the winning hand. If I had simply turned my cards face up after the river, I’d have over $600 more in front of me. But I didn’t. I mucked the winning hand.
As the next hand was dealt, I felt a heat surging up from inside me. It started in my stomach then it spread to my face and extremities. Then it was in my eyes. Suddenly, I could no longer see straight. Everything was on fire. My brain was seared through; my vision was blurry. I took a very deep breath and ran my right hand through my hair, then down the length of my face. I was not disappointed or sad or frustrated or upset or confused. I was none of those. The emotion I felt was crystal clear: anger. I was fucking livid. And the target of my rage was… me.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a merciless self-critic. And in the aftermath of the hand I just described, the psychic self-immolation began. There are only a handful of times in recent memory when I’ve been that pissed off. The endless drought, the bubble, tossing away six hundred dollars it all came to a head in a massive internal conflagration. I was on the verge of losing my mind.
I sat there for maybe two minutes, scared of what might happen next. When the fire raging inside me faded a bit, I unsteadily rose from my chair and staggered to the bathroom, where I leaned over a sink and splashed water on my face. Then, with my head still spinning, I went and sat back down in the 2-5 game. I played every hand, bleeding away chips until I was sitting on $1200. Then I picked up the A-J of diamonds under the gun and limped in. Several other players followed suit. The flop came 8-7-6 with 2 diamonds. I led out for $50, a player in middle position raised to $200, and a player in late position shoved for about $600. Still dizzy and harboring a subconscious death wish, I moved all in for my remaining $1150, sloppily shoving the chips into the center in haphazard half-toppled stacks. The middle position player, who had me covered by a few hundred chips, called instantly. Both my opponents held 10-9 and had flopped the nuts. Of course, neither the turn nor river was a diamond. My self-destruction was complete.
I wandered away from the table, up the stairs out of the poker room, through the casino, and towards the exit. My eyes led my body through the crowd but registered nothing. New emotions were setting in. I felt pathetic. And I began to think that I was a professional poker player in name only. I had moved down to a game in which I was a big favorite, and once I got my hand on some chips, I made a hideous rookie mistake, then tilted off the rest of my chips.
I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so I just wandered around for about an hour, in a state of despair. I placed a phone call to Janeen but was unable to muster the energy to explain my afflicted mental state. I just held the phone and sat there in silence. I was inconsolable. But shortly thereafter, something clicked into place. I’m not sure how or why, but as I walked down Fowoods’ restaurant row, I finally began to gain some perspective.
I thought about things and it occurred to me that my desolation was shortsighted. I was wallowing in despair for no good reason. What was my problem? I had been playing professional poker for ten months and had earned more money than I’d ever made in ten months as a lawyer. A year ago I was waking up early in the morning, putting on a suit and dragging my ass through day after miserable day of a job I had no passion for. Now I had no need for an alarm clock. I made my own schedule and traveled around the country playing poker. And I was really enjoying it (Foxwoods shitfit notwithstanding). Most of all, for the first time ever, I was living my life on my own terms. I was my own man. You know what? Fuck being depressed.
I’m writing this blog entry from the comfortable shadow of a big win, so perhaps it’s easier for me to say this in retrospect. But as quickly as the anger and desolation set in, it was replaced by determination. I hit an emotional crossroads of sorts, and I snapped out of my pathetic Foxwoods funk right there in front of Fuddrucker’s.
I hadn’t studied my ass off for five years, piled up thousands of dollars in winnings, kept meticulous statistical track of my progress and then made the daring jump to professional poker, then played 40 hours per week for ten months just so that I could get my panties in a bunch over a couple of mistakes and give up. The entire notion was suddenly ridiculous and my recent defeats seemed small.
I went back to the poker room and bought into a $200 one-table tournament. I killed it. Then I bought into another 2-5 no limit game for $500. It was around 10:30 p.m. By 4:30 a.m., I had cashed out for around $2500.
I went back to my hotel room. After all was said and done, I was about even for the week. I drifted off into a very sound, refreshing sleep.
The next day was unseasonably warm and sunny. I checked out of the hotel and climbed into my car. I drove around without a destination for a long time. I had the window down and the radio on. I found Mystic Seaport, got out of the car and sat on a bench in the sunlight. I admired the trees with their multicolored leaves. It was one of those crisp fall days, just cool enough to make wearing a jacket feel right. I got back in my car and went to Dunkin’ Donuts, where I ordered an iced coffee. It was delicious. Then I went back to the casino, won a few hundred bucks more, and left for home.